Involving listeners in a presentation

Presenters often use techniques that are intended to involve listeners in their presentation – including things like asking questions, encouraging listeners to talk about an issue to the person sitting next to them, or asking for a show of hands about listeners’ opinions.

Some presenters use these techniques successfully but, at times, they seem to fall flat.

I was listening to a presentation yesterday, and I found that the involvement techniques really didn’t work for me. As my mind wandered, I got to thinking about what was going on and how the techniques could be made to work.

The presenter I was listening to had a habit of asking the audience for a show of hands. How many people prefer A? How many people prefer B? That type of thing. The trouble was that I felt a bit judged by these questions, because they weren’t followed through. So what if someone selected A and not B? What does that mean? And what should the different responses lead listeners to understand about the topic being discussed? In this case, I felt as though the questions were often designed to involve the audience with no purpose, because the question was not carried through to its logical conclusion in a way that would help us to learn something.

My first thought from yesterday’s session: Only ask the audience to respond to a question with a show of hands if there’s a logical reason for the question and if the presenter follows through with the implication of the responses.

The presenter also tended to ask questions like: Does everyone know about the Z Model? Then, with a few nods, she’d move on. This means that anyone who didn’t know the model but wasn’t confident about responding was left behind.

My second thought: Don’t ask questions about whether listeners know bits of underlying theory unless you plan to get an answer from everyone. If it’s important and there’s some question about whether listeners will know it, explain it.

The presenter liked to ask questions that were knowledge-based rather than experience-based. So we’d get questions like: Who can tell me what ZYX stands for? And then we’d get silence or further questions until someone responded. This felt like a bit of a challenge, and I was a little tense about it. I had no idea about the things she was asking. When someone did respond, the presenter simply said ‘yes, great’, without repeating if for the rest of the group to hear. But so often, the entire group of listeners can’t hear the input of other audience members.

My third thought: Prefer experience-based questions (‘What do you think about…’ or ‘How do you respond to …’) rather than knowledge questions. After all, this isn’t a test.

My fourth thought: Repeat for all listeners the things that other listeners say. There’s a good chance that not everyone will hear the comment or question.

Finally, the presenter referred several times to her time limitations in the session. We heard that several topics really deserved a full workshop, and we were only getting a cursory introduction here. We also heard about how difficult it was to confine the presentation to the time available. As an audience member, I didn’t want to hear this. The timing isn’t my problem. It’s the presenter’s job to make judgements about the timing and level of detail.

My fifth thought: Don’t refer to timing during a presentation. Simply plan well enough to keep the session to time. When the topic is detailed and only being skimmed over in the presentation, say that without complaining about the time limitations for this session.

And, with that, I’ve given myself a few more things to think about when I give presentations!